Recovery group honors a pioneer
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Recovery group honors a pioneer

JACS to honor Rabbi Abraham Twerski on his 80th birthday

Fifteen years ago, Cresskill resident Ricki Gorman called Rabbi Abraham Twerski on his home phone and told him that a loved one was an alcoholic.

Twerski, known for his groundbreaking work with alcoholism and drug addiction in the Jewish community, directed her to JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others.

Gorman, whose family member is now in recovery, says she will always be grateful to JACS and to Twerski, whose 80th birthday the organization will celebrate on Feb. 20.

“I worked at Beth Israel Hospital,” said Gorman, a longtime nurse at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, “and a social worker gave me his home phone number. I called him and we discussed the issue. It’s especially meaningful to me that JACS is honoring him at this dinner.”

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Abraham Twerski

Billed as “A Twerski Celebration,” the event will acknowledge the contribution of other Twerskis as well. Benzion Twerski, a psychologist in practice in Brooklyn and the son of the birthday honoree, works with youth in the areas of alcohol, drug, gambling, and sex addictions. Rabbi Mordecai Twerski, the elder Twerski’s nephew, is a family therapist who also deals with addictive behavior in the Jewish community.

Abraham Twerski, who told The Jewish Standard that he is retired but continues to support the organization, said that he has spent many years “trying to get the issue of alcohol and drug addiction in the Jewish community across to its members.”

“There’s enormous resistance,” he said, noting that it’s better now than it was when he began his work four decades ago, “but there’s still a great deal of difficulty.”

For example, he said, Jews mistakenly assume that 12-Step programs are inherently Christian since many of them are held in churches.

“But that’s because the shuls didn’t admit them,” he said. “And where they did, no Jews came. They didn’t want to be seen.”

Jews are still very secretive about addiction, said Twerski, pointing out that “drunkenness has always been considered loathsome by the Jewish community.”

The rabbi/psychiatrist – who began his career as clinical director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh – founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in 1972 and serves as medical director emeritus of the institution. Gateway provides programs for addiction treatment, education, prevention, and research.

“We built Gateway and somehow it survived,” he mused, pointing out that in 1972, when it was created, treatment for alcoholism was not covered by health insurance companies. “We did what couldn’t be done,” he said.

From the beginning, he said, he realized that Jews were among his clients, “and I realized the community didn’t want to deal with that. There’s a built-in denial; it’s not a ‘Jewish thing.'”

The author of more than 60 books on Judaism and self-help topics – his most recent is “Gevurah” (ArtScroll), detailing his own experiences – Twerski delivered the keynote address at JACS’ 25th anniversary celebration in 2004, saying then that “there is a need to feel that our own story is being told, and that’s the missing ingredient for many Jews in recovery that JACS provides.”

The event honoring the Twerskis is the group’s first fund-raising venture, said Julie Saperstein, JACS president and a Teaneck resident, noting that the current economic climate has made such fund-raising necessary. JACS is a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, receiving federation funding as well as fees from retreats, membership, and donations. Still, said Saperstein, “Like all nonprofits, we’re hurting financially.”

The JACS president has been involved with the group since 1997.

“I started working there right out of college,” she said, adding that in later years she moved on to become a lay leader on the advisory board.

Saperstein described the mission of the group as three-fold: “To help Jewish alcoholics and drug addicts and their families enhance their recovery within the framework of Judaism; to educate the Jewish community; and to serve as an information clearinghouse.”

JACS, she said, is reaching into seminaries and provides scholarships for rabbis and rabbinical students to attend the organization’s spiritual retreats. The goal, she said, is “to educate clergy about addiction in the Jewish community so they can better advise their communities.”

JACS serves Jews of every branch of Judaism, said Saperstein.

“Everyone observes at their own level,” she noted, adding that “one of the most miraculous things” she saw at a JACS retreat was a rabbi with a streimel talking to a woman with tattoos.

“Both were Jewish addicts, addicted to heroin,” she said. “Both are now clean.”

She is hopeful that the fund-raiser will get the word out about the organization – which, she said, helps thousands of Jews of all ages each year.

“We provide resources,” she said. “For example, we say here is a list of treatment centers that know how to work with Jewish patients, can get kosher food, or have clergy on site that can help you. Or people call and say, ‘I want to get clean but can’t go to a 12-Step program because it’s at a church.’ And we say, ‘Here’s literature from Rabbi Twerski saying that you can.’ We give them the stepping stone they need.”

Rabbi Amy Bolton, director of The Living Room – the health, wellness, and healing center at Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson – became involved in JACS about four years ago after spending a year working with the Teshuvah recovery center in Los Angeles. Now, a volunteer with the JACS retreat program, she is focused on bringing greater awareness to the rabbinic community.

“In 2006, JFS determined to increase its support for Jews in recovery and their families,” said Bolton, noting that the agency helped members establish a local support group, which meets the second Thursday of each month. Bolton begins each session with a teaching on a Jewish theme, and the meeting is then taken over by a group member.

“What’s unique is that meetings are open to people in recovery as well as their family members,” she said. “They can get both support and information.”

For information about the Bergen County group, e-mail amyb@jfsbergen.org. To learn more about “A Twerski Celebration” – which will be held at Beth Aharon Forem Chabad House in Tenafly – or for more information about JACS, visitwww.jacsweb.org or e-mail jacs@jacsweb.org.

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